Bringing Tourism to the Black Hills
Tourism did not always play a significant role in the Black Hills economy. Before the 1920s, mining, timber, and ranching provided the cornerstones of the regional economy. In the mid-twenties, when agriculture began to struggle across the state, several key political figures worked to jumpstart tourism. In addition to establishing state parks, they entertained early bids for projects—like Mount Rushmore–that would boost the state’s economy by attracting tourists—starting with the President Calvin Coolidge.
Once the President accepted the invitation to come to South Dakota, planning swung into action. Workers built or paved roads in a hurry. Phone lines were laid and laborers made last-minute improvements to the Coolidges’ accommodations. These changes made the President and his wife more comfortable and made the area more accessible and comfortable for generations of tourists.
Senator Peter Norbeck took advantage of the President’s arrival to promote his vision for Custer State Park. He saw consolidation of park management as the best way to promote its success and used the president’s visit as an opportunity to push legislation that created a park superintendent and granted additional powers to the park board. While political tensions between Norbeck and Governor Gunderson nearly prevented the passing of legislation, merging of the park’s administration allowed for a more direct line of communication with the president and his vacation planners. Furthermore, it allowed for growth in the park after Coolidge’s stay.
President Coolidge was keenly aware that his stay in South Dakota would have a marked impact on the state, and he was gracious enough to aid these efforts to promote tourism. Shortly after his arrival, he told a group of nearly 500 editors who had come to the Hills:
“You will go a long way to find any more inspiring country. Other places may be more developed industrially, but none is more beautiful than this…When you write your dispatches I want you to advertise this wonderful country. I am going to do all I can to advertise it.”
Reporters and photographers who followed the President shared stories and images with readers all across the country. South Dakota could not have asked for a better, or cheaper, form of advertising. President Coolidge’s trip to the Black Hills brought attention to the area in greater ways than most hoped. It paved the way for the economic impact of tourism today.